We've all spent time in the midst of chaos, right? Trying to solve a problem or put a coherent argument together, but overwhelmed with ideas, information, concepts, tasks...
Sometimes the best solution is the simplest – just tidy up. (Here's a fantastic Swiss artist who's apparently made a career of this. I suspect there is a personality test based on whether you find his work delightful or irritating!) You’ll often hear consultants talk about “bucketing” and this is all it means. It’s the conceptual equivalent of sorting laundry into piles, or putting similar-sized screws into individual drawers in a toolkit – and it’s really not a lot more complicated than that, although it is a bit more iterative.
How to do this with work problems? It’s a simple process, really, and it’s fantastically rewarding. I start by writing each separate idea or piece of information down - often on a post-it note. At this point I’m not asking myself anything complicated; I’m just asking “what do I know?” or “what could I do?” or “what’s on my mind about this problem?” I try to keep each idea really succinct and simple - so I keep the post-its small. (Use all the same colour of post-it note – don’t get all fancy with colour-coding.)
As I go, I put the post-its up on a wall, or in front of me on a table, clustering similar ones together. I can move them around between group as many times as I like, and I do. I give myself permission to completely rearrange partway through if it feels right. If I’m having trouble committing to a particular categorization and I have the luxury of time, I will leave the whole mess alone for a while and come back to it. I might try it one way, take a photo of it, and then do it another way. If I’m having a lot of trouble keeping a particular note in one group or another, I think about whether it is really one idea, or is it actually two? If I’ve got one idea that stands alone, maybe that’s OK, or maybe it’s a sign to eliminate that idea entirely because it really doesn't fit.
I’m done with this step when I feel like things that belong together, are together.
Then I think about each group – can I order the post-its in a meaningful way? In order of importance, or complexity, or size? Can they go in sequence? Are some of them more detailed than others? Are any of them subsets of others? There are times when this step causes me to rethink the buckets themselves, and that’s OK too – the post-its will still stick to the wall if I move them yet again. Sometimes I do this step as I cluster the notes, which can help me define the groups, sometimes.
I’m done with this step when I feel like things are really organized in front of me; things are together and there’s some kind of orderly flow to the structure. At this stage I'll generally do a scan to see if there's anything missing - do I need to add a post-it note somewhere?
And then what happens? If I need to write a document, each post-it may become a bullet point, or a paragraph, or a slide, or a section. If it’s a process I’m working through, maybe each post-it becomes a step along the way. If it’s a project, maybe each post-it represents a phase or a deliverable, or possibly an issue.
For facilitators, this can also be a great way to have a group work together – they can first generate the post-it notes on their own, and then bucket them as a group activity. The question can be something like “what is the most important thing we should do next year to grow our business?” One fascinating way to do the bucketing with a group is in silence. Everyone has permission to move everyone else’s post-its without determining in advance what the categories are. Some of the interesting discussion afterward might hinge on whether some post-its got moved from one bucket to another by different people, and why.
It’s certainly something to try the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, without a clear sense of how to proceed.